Thursday, August 21, 2008

Invading a Child's Home


I went to a gathering in a family home yesterday and the little boy who lived there was quite overwhelmed to have strangers in his home. He was even less happy when his mother turned the television off. I have no idea if this little fellow had autism, there were a lot of people there and this little boy was not interested in chatting with me. Still watching him and his mother trying to cope with his anxiety was instructive to me and this situation is certainly one that parents mention as difficult often at the clinic where I work. I am on vacation right now, so you'd think I could just let this go, mentally--but I guess my mind could not resist--I woke up dreaming about setting up a plan to help the unhappy little guy I met last night:

People are Invading My Home Plan
(Only don't call it that because the point is to re-frame and support your child)

First of all, like all difficult moments, it is better if one has a plan predetermined so I would suggest making a plan with your child before people come to visit your home. If caught unprepared, however, one more step will be needed (see below). In this case, the plan is for a verbal child who can read--the plan would need to include pictures (hand drawn, line drawings would be fine as the pictures are just to remind your child of the various steps.)

Sit down with your child and tell him or her that people will be coming to visit. If you know the time and your child is a clock watcher, add the time of arrival, as details like this make a plan work better. Most of us prefer to know the time that visitors will be arriving and leaving, so it makes sense that your child should want this information. Tell your child that you know it is hard for him or her when people visit so you are going to make a plan so that it will be easier. The exact items on your plan will need to be individualized for your child--if he or she can greet people when they come, put greeting people on the plan. If greeting people would be too hard, tell your child that he or she can wait in another room until everyone has arrived. In other words, don't take these steps literally, write steps that will represent a reasonable expectation for your child--and don't worry about what your guests will think about all this--they are visiting your home after all. Write your plan down in list form. Give it a title.

Plan for Being Happy When People Come to Visit

  1. We are going to have people over, so Mom is going to make treats. You can help and you can choose if mommy makes cake or cookies.
  2. Mom is going to turn the TV off at 7:00, before people come over. People will come at about 7:30. You can help mom get ready by putting treats and juice out on the table and you can eat one treat before anyone comes to our house. We will save the rest for our guests, but you can eat one more when all the people are eating.
  3. When people come to the door, Mom will say hello to each person. You can say hi to anyone who says hi to you. Some people might want to hug you or touch your shoulder or ruffle your hair. This is OK.
  4. Mom will invite people to sit down. You can sit in the blue chair and mom will come sit next to you after everyone sits down. If someone else sits in the blue chair, mom will ask that person to move to a different chair.
  5. We are going to put a quiet toy next to your blue chair. You can choose a quiet toy. Do you want your stretchy snakes, your Blues Clues book, or your notebook for drawing? Playing with this toy will help you if you get nervous around all the people. It is OK for you to go in your room if you don't want to be around people. You can come back out when you are ready to visit again.
  6. You can talk to our visitors. If you want to talk to Aunt Amy, remember to ask her about her dog, Babe. Just say, How is Babe doing? She likes to talk about her dog. Grandpa likes to talk about when he was a boy. Ask him, Grandpa, what did you do when you were eight years old?
  7. You can help mom give everybody treats. Tell people that you helped mom make the treats.
  8. People will leave at about 9:00 pm. Some might leave later, but not too much later.
  9. After everyone leaves, we will watch a movie. Mom will watch it with you and she will be so proud of you because you tried to be a good host.
If you have not made a plan before visitors come and your child gets upset when they come over, take time to make a plan. I would say something like, It is hard for you when people come over. It makes you upset when mom turns off the TV because the TV helps you stay calm when we have visitors. Come in the kitchen with me and mom will make a plan with you so you can feel OK with the TV off. Then, excuse yourself for a moment and go and write a list that tells your child what he or she can do that will help. Write when the TV will come back on.

Don't ask your child if he or she wants to do something that needs to be done, tell don't ask. When parents are worried that a child might get upset, parents tend to use the more polite form of giving a verbal direction. For example, a parent might say, Are you ready to go be with our visitors now? When the parent means, It is time to go be with our visitors now. Give choices, though, when you can. For example, you could say, We will go in to visit with our visitors, do you want to bring Fido (the dog) with us or leave him in the kitchen?

Write specific things on your plan like where to sit, what to say, what to do exactly and when because it is easier for your child if you mention specific things rather than general things like Be polite, be friendly, be good. Write what will happen after everyone leaves. Again, a plan can be made with line drawings for a child who does not yet read. A plan could be as simple as a picture form of:
  1. Bake cookies
  2. Turn TV off
  3. Say Hi to people
  4. Sit in blue chair
  5. Read Blues Clues book
  6. Say Goodbye
  7. Watch Cars Movie

The point here is that many children need preparation when they have visitors. Explicit written directions are enough to help many children. For other children there will be more steps. The process of learning how to be hospitable is hard for many children and not just those with autism. We expect that children will just learn the necessary emotional, social, and practical skills of hospitality by watching us, but for some children this is like learning algebra by watching someone else solve an algebra problem. It is just too complex and the child needs more support in learning. Other things that can be helpful include role playing and real life practice sessions. In real life practice session, you invite a few friends specifically for the purpose of helping your child learn to be a Host or Hostess. A short and highly planned visit can help your child learn the parts of hospitality and short visits can make it easier for you to teach one or two specific skills at a time.

I believe that all children can learn to enjoy new social situations including friends and strangers coming to visit, family gatherings, religious gatherings, grocery stores trips and sit down restaurants. Parents need to know that no matter how challenging these situations are now, an explicit plan for learning to participate and enjoy new situations can be created.

1 comment:

Serene said...

I know I feel calmer when I have a plan for how to get through an event.